CINCINNATI — Elizabeth Willard was relieved when she qualified for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance in Ohio. As an independent contractor who styles hair for weddings, she wasn’t eligible for traditional unemployment when the bridal industry shut down in March due to COVID-19.
But she wasn’t as grateful after Ohio’s Department of Job and Family Services asked for a refund, claiming Willard was overpaid by $4,085.50.
“When I was approved for $398 a week, I assumed that was the amount that the unemployment system configured I was approved for. I called numerous times to make sure all my information was submitted correctly,” Willard wrote the agency in September.
Although JFS later reduced the overpayment amount to $2,700, Willard doesn’t understand why she should have to pay for the agency’s mistake.
“They do need to be held accountable and fix this,” Willard said. “I understand they dealt with fraud but that shouldn't impact those of us that did the right thing.”
It’s a growing problem in Ohio that now affects more than 162,000 people, JFS told the WCPO 9 I-Team exclusively last week. That’s nearly 28% of those who received PUA benefits through Sept. 30.
JFS said it has no choice but to seek repayment in the federally funded program that provided $6.8 billion in benefits to more than 665,000 Ohioans as of this week.
“By federal law, PUA overpayments are not waivable,” wrote JFS Spokesman Bret Crow in a Nov. 11 email response to the I-Team’s questions. “A higher overpayment rate was expected for PUA because the (U.S. Department of Labor) urged states to let recipients self-certify both their eligibility and earnings history. This was so they could be quickly issued payments if they were not eligible for traditional unemployment benefits and were unemployed as a result of the pandemic.”
Ohio also overpaid more than 72,000 recipients of traditional unemployment. That’s 8.6% of the 837,341 people who received such benefits through Sept. 30. Crow said Ohio has more flexibility to forgive overpayments for these recipients and those who got an extra $600 from Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. Like PUA, PUC was authorized by the CARES Act.
Crow said JFS is “further examining state and federal law to identify any other circumstances that may allow us to waive or otherwise not pursue benefit overpayments, such as waiving the portions of the overpayment that represent FPUC. We continue to analyze this authority and will use whatever discretion we have available to us to defray hardship on Ohio’s families while staying true to our role as stewards of taxpayer money.”
If another stimulus bill emerges in Congress, both of Ohio’s senators say language to allow PUA waivers should be included. The House-passed Heroes Act, which was rejected by the Senate, included language to allow waivers to back the program’s start if repayment “would be contrary to equity and good conscience.” Senator Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said PUA waivers are “in the negotiations,” but it isn’t clear whether the House language would prevail.
“Of course, I support waiving those repay requirements because these are people struggling,” Brown said. “They didn’t ask for the overpay. They’re still struggling regardless of whether there’s an overpayment or not.”
In a statement, Senator Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he “supports the ongoing discussions to include some form of a PUA repayment waiver in any upcoming COVID-19 relief package.”
Beyond the question of whether overpayments should be forgiven, Willard questions why they happened in the first place.
“How does that happen? You just don’t give money away,” she said. “I wouldn’t have kept it or done anything with it if I had known it was an overpayment.”
After she learned her weekly benefit amount in May, Willard re-submitted her 2019 tax return to make sure the state had all the information it needed to calculate an accurate benefit amount. She provided a screen capture to the I-Team to show JFS confirmed the submission, but she didn’t learn about the overpayment until months later.
“If you’ve never applied for PUA before, how would you know the difference? You can’t get ahold of anybody. When you’re emailing, nobody can tell you,” she said.
But Willard is also sympathetic to problems the agency faced when 1.8 million Ohioans filed new claims for unemployment in the last 33 weeks. That’s more claims than the previous four years combined.
“The agency did find itself in a difficult spot,” said Zach Schiller, research director for Policy Matters Ohio, a Cleveland-based think tank. “While certainly one can fault an agency for how it has dealt with all of this, I think that it was also an extraordinary time. There were literally hundreds of thousands of unemployed people seeking benefits. Were you going to deny them? If we were sitting here back in April, what we would be saying? ‘Give them benefits.’ We didn’t want hundreds of thousands of Ohioans unable to buy food and pay the rent or make the car payment.”